Mannheim, Germany - Women’s Month, August 2018, is also the 130th anniversary of the first ever road trip by a combustion-powered vehicle. And the driver was a woman.   

Karl Benz built his first three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen in 1885 and by August 1888 he was on Version 3.0, developed and built using finance mostly provided by his wife Bertha, daughter of the wealthy Ringer family of Pforzheim. Nevertheless, he still regarded the vehicle as experimental, and had never driven further than around the courtyard of his workshop.

Bertha, however, saw things differently. If her husband’s invention was to gain the recognition it needed to attract serious investors, it had to be out there, showing the world what he had achieved.

A contemporary photograph of the real Bertha Benz.

So, at 5am on the morning of 12 August she and her two young sons, without telling Karl, pulled the Motorwagen out of the workshop and started it, and she climbed aboard and set off down the wagon tracks that passed for main roads in southwestern Germany in the 1880s, to go and visit her family in Pforzheim, 106km away.

This recent video by Mercedes-Benz recreates that pioneering drive:

Along the way she had to stop every 20km or so to ask local farmers for water to refill the total-loss cooling system, and once at an apothecary’s shop to buy out his entire stock of a plant alcohol-based stain remover called ligroin, which was what the Patentwagen used for fuel (it’s been known ever since as Benzine in her honour; you’ll find it in the DIY section at your local supermarket).

The engine of a replica Motorwagen.

At one point the engine’s suction-operated inlet valve got stuck, and several times she had to clear a blocked fuel line with a hatpin; the story goes that she even used one of her garters to patch up the ignition sytem.

She was on the road for more than 16 hours, arriving at her parents’ home late in the evening (remember, the Patentwagen had no lights) and promptly sent a telegram to her husband to let him know where she was. His reaction can well be imagined, given that he had never driven more than a few hundred metres at a time.

And a couple of days later, she drove back again. Why not, she said; she’d already proved it could be done.

IOL Motoring